11 January 2010

Signs and Wonders: Part I -- The Magi

At St. Andrew's, we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany (6 January) on the Sunday closest to the day. It worked even better this year for us to do this on 3 January, since it was the only window we seemed to have in a long streak of really ugly winter weather. For some years now, our parish has had a tradition of having a visit from the Magi...the Three Wise Men.

Now, we are not talking about three guys dressed in robes and crowns; and each singing the appropriate verse of the hymn, "We Three Kings..." We have artists in our parish, and one in particular, who designed and built large puppets that are piloted by guys who are strapped inside. When mobile, they stand nearly 10 feet high. the construction is light enough for a healthy adult with good muscle tone to navigate the puppet with relative ease. They are magnificent!

They each come down the center aisle from the back of the Church as the particular verse pertaining to that wise man is sung (gold, frankincense, myrrh...you know the hymn/carol). They give reverence to Jesus and to one another and stand still during the proclamation of the Epiphany Gospel. Afterward, they amble back to the entry of the church as appropriate music is played (our organist/music director has a flair for making this an even more impressive treat).

That is, until this year. Something went quite wrong. The clergy and music director work on crafting liturgical worship on a schedule that begins months before the event. The final bulletin, that sets the liturgical format, is reviewed at least twice before going to press. Our communications director (staff person) is very careful in crafting our publications, which includes the bulletins. But, this time, something got out of sync. The music was not in the right place, and we didn't catch the glitch until after the first liturgy of 3 January had begun (we have two liturgies: 8am and 10:15am on Sunday mornings). The Three Kings hymn came and went...in the wrong place. No giant magi appeared. The Gospel hymn (which should have been the Three Kings hymn) came and went. Still no giant magi puppets. Then, suddenly, as the acolytes and Deacon were starting to return to the Chancel, after the Gospel, the first of the three magi puppets comes in and heads resolutely up the aisle....followed by the other two in pretty fast succession.

Not to be undone by this, one of my Associates comes over to me (I was presiding and preaching at this 8am liturgy) with a querie. After a lightning fast consult, Mother Anne dashes to the organist with the plan. Within seconds...literally...we are singing (again), "We Three Kings."

Now, I have a quandry. I have prepared a sermon that is appropriate for the day but does not have three ten foot puppets standing about. I have been doing worship as a priest for 31 years. For almost 30 of those, I have not used a text for sermons. I do all the work of preparation, design the presentation and then preach extemporaneously (without notes). It's just a gift. This time, being free of text really paid off. I had no idea how to recraft what was already in motion in my head/heart. I stared at the Altar feeling a rather stark blankness. Then, it happened. It was like fast moving doors opening and closing in my head...moving things about. In what seemed like a long time (but folks around me said I was only motionless about 15 seconds), I knew exactly how to make this thing work.

As the first magi puppet began his exit march, I raised a hand and shouted, "A moment sir!" The puppet master inside spun professionally and faced me. I bid him return, for I had some things to address to him and his two fellow travelers. This began a 10 minute discourse on the meaning of signs and wonders. Whatever God did in those moments, it all came together in an almost seamless fashion. I finished, the magi bowed to me, and I to them, music started, and they headed home by another way (as tradition has it), and I...more spent than usual...returned to my prayer desk to continue the balance of our Eucharistic liturgy. Needless to say, a quick and focused meeting after 8am made it work at 10:15am without the panic. In fact, I had the magi there with the kids for a special time during the sermon...nothing like the original plan.

Signs and wonders happen all around us. They are happening all the time. What seems like chaos one minute can become a transformational opportunity the very next moment. It does require us to be unfettered by convention, routine or hard-wired expectations. Above all, for God to break into our moment requires flexibility. What passed for convention and expectation at the time of Jesus' birth was shattered as three foreigners...each from a different country...saw something that stirred them from the relative safety of their environments, put them on the road to an unknown destination, caused them to meet along the way and join forces to continue the journey...bearing a kind of physical wealth that would have made travel hazardous at best.

The distance from the back of St. Andrew's parish church to the chancel steps is about 100 feet. This is a very short journey by comparison to the first century journey in faith. It took each magi puppet, piloted by its puppet master, about two minutes to get from back to front. In the space of about five minutes, everything about what I had planned to do as a homiletic reflection shifted radically. This is the work of God's Grace....God "showing up." The ability of the moment to say, "what now?" in a way that allowed ultimate flexibility and openness created a means by which connections could be made for those gathered to experience Grace in sacramental worship. This was both a sign and wonder. It's moments like these that make this vocation truly exciting!



No comments:

Post a Comment